Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates… if you’re looking for motivation or personal inspiration, it’s likely that you’ll see quotes from rich, prominent people. At the same time, there seems to be growing discontent with the levels of inequality in the world — a discontent seemingly at odds with the worship of wealthy people we see in the media and online.
A new study, published in PNAS, explores this disconnect. It finds that even as we see the wealth of billionaires as a group as unfair, we remain tolerant of the achievements and wealth of individuals. And this also has an impact on the policies and positions people are willing to support.
An initial study explored how much executives should make, with participants reading either about the recent increase in the salaries of CEOs from the largest companies in America, or about the increase of one specific CEO. Those who read about individual CEOs thought their salaries should be significantly higher than those who read about CEOs as a group. A second study replicated these findings in the context of sport, where high-financed individual players were seen as having less of an unfair advantage over low-financed players than high-financed teams over low-financed teams.
In a third study, participants read two passages, one about a conglomerate and one about an individual. In both pieces of writing, the conglomerate or individual were in a competition to win a government contract; because of their wealth, they were able to spend more than their rivals for the contract, which they eventually won. Again, participants felt that the competition between individuals was more fair, both in terms of outcome and in terms of the resource distribution between competitors.
In a later study, participants were told either the average wealth of the 25 wealthiest people in America or about the wealth accrued by one of the wealthiest individuals. No information was given about their identity or the way they became rich. Participants then wrote about why they thought the individual or group had become rich, the factors they felt were responsible, and how fair they thought it was. Finally, they rated their support for a wealth tax.
Participants who read about individuals had a stronger belief that wealth was down to personal characteristics, and also believed it had been obtained more fairly than those who read about the group. Those who read about the group were also marginally more in favour of a wealth tax, suggesting again that we feel more sympathetic towards rich individuals than groups.
The final study looked at the impact of the media. Half of the participants saw a cover from Forbes magazine highlighting seven of the wealthiest people in the world. The other half of participants saw a cover with just one of the seven billionaires.
After viewing the cover, participants were then asked to write about how they felt about the person or people depicted, how much they thought they deserved their wealth, how fair it was, and how much their success was due to talents and abilities versus an unequal and unfair economic system. Finally, participants rated how much they supported an inheritance tax to close the inequality gap.
Those in the individual condition wrote less angry responses about how they felt than those in the group condition, and were more likely to chalk success up to talent than any unfair advantage. Those who saw the group of billionaires were also more likely to back an inheritance tax than those who saw individuals.
This isn’t the first study to find a difference in attitudes between individuals and groups — other research published this year found that we’re also more likely to steal from large groups than we are from individuals, while another study found that we prefer individual to team winning streaks. So why is this the case? The team suggests that we are better able to stereotype groups — so when confronted with a particular individual, the traits of theirs that don’t align with these stereotypes lead us to see them as less prototypical of the group and thus more sympathetic. And if we think negatively about “the 1%”, the individuals we bring to mind will be especially negative, making those less egregious individuals seem better in comparison.
“How we express and communicate information about inequality is important,” said co-author Jesse Walker. “Talking about ‘the 1%’ is going to get a different reaction than personalizing it by talking about one person in that exclusive club.” Rethinking how we talk about inequality, showing the negative impact of individual as well as collective wealth, may help shift attitudes.